The finale of Season 6 of Game of Thrones ended with dragons in the air, ships at sea, a fearless leader on a journey, and, more likely than not, a big, goofy smile on your stupid face. Daenerys and her posse sailing west capped off the episode with a giddy moment, one that made me applaud in the direction of my screen like a senior citizen clapping for the pilot when the plane lands. For the first time, it felt like Game of Thrones might end with a big group hug.
Typically, in the immediate aftermath of a new episode, I feel a sense of doom. It's a good type of doom, like the emotional rush you experience as you get thrown off an inner tube pulled by a speedboat. It's a feeling I've gotten used to over the years and even started to enjoy and cultivate; Sundays are for leisure, reflection, and controlled blasts of nihilism. The psychological distress the show inflicts can be soothing, like a big budget ASMR video for masochists.
While this season's turn toward the light confused me, given how we've been conditioned by author George R.R. Martin and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to believe there's no such thing as a happy ending, the finale -- with its rousing speech from a small child, tender character moments between a queen and her advisor, surprising food-based vengeance, and sweeping final sequence -- suggested a path that I wouldn't have expected a year ago: that the ending to Game of Thrones might not be bleak as hell. It might even be happy.
What would a "happy" Game of Thrones series finale look like?
It's hard to picture, right? Most of the possibilities feel absurd. Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow sharing a loud smooch as their dragons and direwolves cavort behind them and a dapper Varys pops up from the margins of the screen to deliver a Porky Pig-style "That's all, folks!" Maybe Samwell Tarly gains seed money to launch a Wikipedia-like database for maesters. Or all the dead Starks emerge as flickering CGI ghosts to look on while Bran, Sansa, and Arya dance around a bonfire and the resurgent Children of the Forest perform "Yub Nub." I've teased out other possibilities, but they all involve "Yub Nub." I will spare you the details.
The point is that Game of Thrones doesn't do happiness -- or, at least, it doesn't do long, extended stretches of it. But the narrative mechanics, emotional beats, and tonal shifts of the last 10 episodes suggest that we're moving in a less cruel, more humane direction. For one thing, the credo of "All men must die" has become more literal this season: with the rising political stock of Daenerys, Ellaria Sand, Yara Greyjoy, Sansa Stark, Lyanna Mormont, and even the villainous Cersei Lannister, the patriarchy is slowly crumbling. Ramsay Bolton, the High Sparrow, and Walder Frey are dead. Slaver's Bay is now the Bay of Dragons. It's a break from the weary cynicism that the show trafficked in for its first five seasons.
It's not that the idea of a happy ending hasn't been floated before. “We all yearn for happy endings, in a sense," said George R.R. Martin, when asked about the ending in a 2015 interview. "Myself, I’m attracted to the bittersweet ending. People ask me how Game of Thrones is gonna end, and I’m not gonna tell them... but I always say to expect something bittersweet in the end. You can’t just fulfill a quest and then pretend life is perfect."
What would Tolkien do?
If you're looking for a model for how the show will come to a close, it's worth grabbing your copy of The Return of the King, a novel that Martin has previously discussed as a possible model for how the show could end. In The Lord of the Rings book series, the ring is destroyed, Aragorn is king, and Sauron is defeated, but Frodo and Sam return home to find that the Shire is now ruled by bad guys and they once again must defeat the evil forces around them. Tellingly, those events did not appear in Peter Jackson's more conventionally crowd-pleasing film adaptation.
There's certainly a possibility that Benioff and Weiss, like Jackson, will end the show in a different way from Martin's still-unpublished books. There will only be 13 more episodes, spread across two seasons, and, as book-reading fans can attest, they've already made some significant changes to Martin's plans. The show is its own beast at this point.
Perhaps, instead of looking at the history of fantasy literature, it's best to look at the other essential part of GoT's dragonblood DNA: the prestige cable-TV drama. The default conclusion for similar series these days is to end on a final moment of ambiguity -- the "Don't Stop Believin'"-fueled cut to black of The Sopranos, the office-dwelling rage of Vic Mackey on The Shield, the melancholy montage of The Wire, the Coca-Cola dreams of Mad Men -- and then let critics, fans, and people who didn't even watch the damn thing argue about the meaning.
None of those shows end on a joyful note, but maybe Game of Thrones will change all that. As Daenerys would say, maybe it's time to break the wheel.
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